On the verge of something new – reflecting on sustainable building and architecture


Our office has taken a decisive step towards sustainable building. During the past year, we have created a sustainable building program. We have also taken concrete measures by preparing methods that help our design work meet the inevitable need to combat climate change. At the moment we are implementing these methods into our everyday design work by testing them in our projects. Testing in practice is the best way to increase competence and understanding.

At the same time, I have been able to dive into the requirements of low-carbon construction with a concrete design task and started to see how the biggest challenges to overcome might not be finding the right tools and specific information for designers, but rather changing our internal and internalised architect´s mindset. The process has led me to reflect on the role and the ultimate mission of an architect, my own choices, and my responsibilities in practicing the profession.

The customer of the design task has set very ambitious emission targets for the life cycle of the building. When our design team has been discussing architectural solutions for the project, we have been dealing with the question of what is right and what is wrong surprisingly often. Are we striving for an aesthetic that is wrong for our environment? Our internal architect has become uncertain in these moments. Are we looking for answers based on the requirements set for the design task, or would it be right to look for answers even deeper based on the root causes behind the requirements? If our values do not guide us in our choices, should our values be reviewed?

The architectural aesthetics we initially liked would have gotten its beauty from concrete structures, but the aim for a small carbon footprint would not have been fulfilled. Through a lengthy and sometimes difficult process, we refined our vision so that the vision began to come alive through a wooden structure. The process required us to practice and the ability to break out of our comfort zone. For an architect, it’s not just about changing material for another. It is about understanding the material, the form language, the style, the internal events. All in all, the shocking basics. We were not always willing to bother ourselves as much as the change required.

As architects, we are accustomed to being the highest authority in the design team when it comes to architecture and understanding the needs of the customers and the users of the space. But what about the environmental needs? An architect is almost taking a passenger seat when it comes to how the buildings are implemented with the least possible impact on the environment in terms of their carbon footprint and energy consumption. The customer, the legislator, and the authorities set us goals guiding towards climate responsibility. Should I, as an architect, be satisfied that I meet these already quite ambitious minimum requirements? Is it enough for me to follow the calculations of engineering practitioners: this carbon footprint, this energy efficiency, this density figure, these types of structures? Or should I be more ambitious and incorporate environmental objectives into the code of ethics for architectural design in the same way that I strive to make a building as good and functional as possible for its users? Could I do even more and more holistically?

We believe that an architect can do more and more holistically. The challenge is to incorporate real changes into the everyday design work. Architects are not inspired by smaller U-values W/m2K, carbon footprint comparisons Co2e/m2/a, or annual energy consumption kWh/m2, a. These surely are necessary metrics to have in order to know that aims have been achieved – and fortunately there are people who are inspired by these metrics. The big answers to reduce emissions of the construction industry swim much deeper. Also, in these deep waters swim the big fish of meaning and inspiration. In the end, it’s about bigger issues, about the really big fish.

I had a consciousness opening experience when attending a lecture where the Spanish Alejandro del Castillo, from the architectural firm n’UNDO, spoke about the philosophy behind his design. n’UNDO’s guideline UNDO – REDO – DO NOT challenges thinking. What is worth building, and why? Where to build, and how? Would you rather fix the old one? Is there a new use for a building or downtown that is being abandoned? What makes quality that lasts? An architect, and an architect in particular, is needed to ask these questions and to generate answers for them. The architect can, at the root of the project, and before there even is a project, ask these questions, and the architect is the one to be listened to. Sometimes DO NOT is the right answer. Even if it might not be such a good business guideline. Not building every unnecessary structure is always better than doing it in the most emission-free way possible.

The architect is used to seeing themselves as the good guy of the story who, under the pressure of maximising profits, creates aesthetic and ethical improvements in the society through the built environment that carries over generations. Consideration of the climate impact of construction and the depletion of biodiversity in this context is a natural continuation of the architect’s efforts.

The role of the architect is significant when, after the conversions of old industrial buildings, a new wave of declining operations follows for our important buildings. What should be done about the unused redundant space in business centres and office buildings, or old buildings in general? How is the life cycle of a building defined? Should buildings be designed to be demolished so that in the future, instead of the life cycle of the building, we are considering the life cycle of recyclable building components that migrate from one building to another? Do we produce waste on design tables? What if sustainable building of the future favours more standardised than unique construction? Would that be something we as architects would see as a negative or positive? If we see it as something negative, will our values that guide design work withstand critical examination from future generations?

Today I find myself having a bad conscience about designing an underground concrete-structured parking facility, for example. It has a significant share of the building´s total carbon footprint. Despite the fact that there is a major transformation going on in the way we move from place to place, we are building structural parking in buildings with a 50–200-year life cycle, even though it is very possible that in 10 to 20 years the need for parking space will be significantly lower than today. But this happens because we must make decisions based on today’s user preferences. Could we compromise on our comfort for the benefit of future generations? Would we find alternatives for the transition period? Asking these and many other questions is a task for professionals in architecture. No question is bad in a situation where we are dealing with rush and uncertainty as we are going towards a sustainable future.

Placing buildings in the landscape creating a harmonious entity is a fine tradition of Finnish architecture. Now it’s time to fit construction into the frames created by our planet´s capacity. Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency is a strong declaration, and our office is taking part with a serious effort to follow the program. New architecture, style and aesthetics, utopias, pilots, and practical projects based on the principles of sustainable construction are emerging around the world and also in-house. In Finland, the large-scale commitment to sustainable construction from architects is yet to be seen. Commitment like the one that in the early days of modernism led architects to the forefront of the new age to create iconic buildings and cities. Great ideas permeate culture and always get expressed in architecture as well. I look forward with interest to the development of an unseen environment-conscious architectural style to blossom.

Marja-Liisa Honkanen
Architect SAFA, partner